When it comes to travel, the internet has removed the mystery from so many bookings by giving us access to much more information. We can get the exact cost for a room at that hotel we saw on a travel show on television. We know to the penny what the flight will cost from Point A to Point B. But car rentals? The true cost is still shrouded in mystery.
By having too many classes of car, too many add-ons, too many hidden fees and too many insurance variables, even with a spreadsheet it is virtually impossible to compare two or three quotes ‘apples-to-apples.’ The best we can do is understand where all the fees might come from, and how to avoid them or estimate them, so we don’t have sticker shock when we get our final bill. Here is a roadmap.
- This rental agency charges 23% less than national averages
- Budget Best Rate Guarantee with price matching and discounts
- Budget offers AARP members up to 30% off their rental agreements
- Hertz offers a special program for drivers over 50 years of age
- Best known for having the largest number of worldwide airport counters
- Hertz wants you get you to your destination fast and offers easy-to-use kiosks
- National is the go-to company for cross-border travel
- Emerald Club members can use points for parent company Enterprise
- Speedy drop-offs and pre-pay options on tolls and gas
- Mileage-based programs & discounts for the regular traveler
- Great offers for AARP members, discounts of up to 30%
- Mobile apps, trip planning tools get you on your way fast
Maybe the kids moved away, so visiting the grandkids means taking flights instead of being able to drive. Maybe we have worked ourselves far enough down our bucket list to be going to see the Grand Canyon at last. Whatever the destination, our first step is to find the best plane fare. Then we move on to find the best hotel if one is needed.
Finally, we get to the part we’ve been secretly dreading: finding the right car rental. The dread is not because of anything tangible. It is not because renting a car is particularly difficult. It is because there are so many moving parts, so many hidden fees and so many choices that we are never sure we have the best deal when we pull the trigger and reserve.
By taking a step back, one of the first things to decide is whether we are focused on the journey or the destination. That is, do we care more about getting just the right car, so we enjoy the travel portion, with cost being less important? Or is the rental simply providing transportation to get us to our destination at the least possible cost? That one decision simplifies the next steps considerably, increasing our chances of being happy with our eventual choice.
At some point, our life choices may have led us to urban living where a car is no longer needed, and car rental represents a form of flexibility and freedom on the open road. When we travel to go see family, a car rental means not having to ask to be picked up at the airport, and provides a level of independence throughout the visit.A car rental can also provide safety or security if our own car is too small or too unreliable for a particular task, for example.
There are dozens of reasons why we might rent a car, and they almost all represent some form of freedom of motion or action.That freedom starts with the decision of whether we rent from a staid, large company with a known name or from a small, local company that offers better pricing, but the possibility of an unexpected adventure.
Whatever our reason for renting and whatever rental company we choose, selecting the right car rental means:
- independence of action when we are visiting others;
- access to out-of-the-way tourist destinations not reachable by public transportation;
- the ability to break from our routine;
- enjoying momentary luxuries we may not have in our daily lives; or
- fulfilling a dream-of-a-lifetime by driving a special sports car or truck.
If we can achieve all that and get the benefit of a ‘senior discount’ in the process, all the better.
Before we commit to a car rental, we want to know how much it is going to cost and how easy the company is going to make the whole process. Does the company offer warranties? How easy is the rental and cancellation process, if needed. Lastly, how easy is it to access customer service if we need assistance?
As we look at the positives and negatives about the company itself, what services does it not offer? Is it easy to upgrade to larger, better cars? What extra insurances does the company require and what add-on accessories does it make available?
Choosing a car: Once you have defined if your priority is the car or the price, you can refine your search by selecting a vehicle class, based on what you need or what you want.However, here is where the car rental company starts confusing you.
Following is the list of one company’s vehicle classes: Economy, Compact, Intermediate, Standard, Full Size, Premium, Premium Elite, Standard Elite, Luxury, Minivan,8-Passenger Minivan, 12-Passenger Van, 12-Passenger High Roof Van, 15-Passenger High Roof Van, Compact SUV, Intermediate SUV, Standard SUV, Large SUV, Luxury SUV, Luxury Elite SUV, Premium Elite SUV, Standard Elite SUV,Small Pickup, Pickup, and Cargo Van.
While other companies may not have quite as many classes, they do all have similar-sounding names. Unfortunately, each company interprets a class name to represent a different vehicle, and each class has different daily and weekly rental rates. Again, pick your car or pick your price.
Other factors include if we are interested in environmentally friendly hybrids, or, for foreign travel, if we can drive a stick shift. (Companies might have few cars for rent with automatic transmissions in some countries.) Then, do we want GPS navigation, satellite radio, child seats or other add-ons?
Deciding on insurances: Before you start, figure out if you have coverage for car rentals through your personal automobile insurance coverage, your homeowners insurance or coverage through a credit card. (You will have to rent using that credit card for the coverage to apply.)Get clarity on exactly what is covered and bring a copy of your policy with you if you plan to count on it.
You may need to supplement what you already have with liability insurance supplement, limited/partial/full loss damage waiver, personal accident insurance or personal effects coverage.It is up to you to decide how much risk you want to take.The coverage provided by car rental companies may also be limited by the state in which you rent the car, so reading the fine print and conferring with your insurance agent will give you the best assessment of coverage.
Focusing your search: Many people start their car rental search the same place they start their plane fare and hotel searches: major travel booking sites such as Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz. They are often looking at bundling their purchases to obtain better discounts. These booking sites are convenient but may not garner the least-cost options available with some more legwork.
Travel aggregators are more aggressive in their search for good deals, as they search across large numbers of websites and bring all the results to one webpage. These aggregators exist for hotels and plane fares, and for car rentals. A browser search for ‘car rental aggregator sites’ should bring up the latest leaders in the field, some of which let you filter the results by price range or by factors such as ‘unlimited miles,’ for example.
Once you start narrowing down what car rental companies are the most interesting, it is time to see if you can find an online discount coupon to lower the cost even further, regardless what car class you have selected. An online search by entering the company name plus ‘discount code’ or ‘promo code’ should bring up possibilities. Write down these code names and values somewhere handy.
Investigate whether any discounts are available through major organizations, frequent flier programs or credit card programs, since car rental discounts are often benefits offered with memberships. Look at AAA, AARP, Costco, BJs and USAA, to start.
Armed with this information, you may still want to take the search one step further: to the website of the car rental companies themselves. Here, with your coupon code, you may find the lowest price of all. If you do not, at least you know you researched every possibility.
Locking in the deal: Once you find the best deal for you, whether you decided strictly by price or by your special access to a specific car, check your rate quote to be certain you have included all possible costs. Hidden costs can include things such as one-way drop-off fees, airport surcharges, mandatory insurances, gasoline charges and so many more. Then read all the fine print to familiarize yourself with the rental terms and conditions. If you are satisfied, make your reservation and document every aspect by printing hard copies, having email confirmations and having phone apps of the transaction with the reservation confirmation number.
Two areas differentiate what seniors prioritize compared to younger people when looking at car rentals: age-friendliness and health-related value.
Age friendliness: If a car rental company is interested in catering to senior renters, it will make its website easy to navigate. Some companies also consider the needs of people with disabilities – which may be an offshoot of aging – including having cars equipped with hand controls available at no extra charge. Steering wheel spinner knobs are often available, as are special telephone service for the hearing impaired. Some companies also facilitate rentals for people with a visual or physical disability who bring a licensed driver who will be on the contract.
Although companies may offer age-related, or ‘senior,’ discounts, after a certain age, seniors may find themselves ‘aged out’ of car rentals in certain countries. In the U.S., maximum age limits are more rarely placed on renters, but for rentals in other countries, if you are over 70, it is smart to ask. Maximum age limits are often between 75 and 80.
Health-related value: Probably the greatest health-related issue pertaining to car rentals is if you become ill and cannot use the confirmed reservation. The fine print regarding reservation cancellation policies will tell you how understanding a company will be. Your goal is to minimize any penalties and to know the exact timing and procedure required byt he company so you can cancel without penalty or cost.
Car rentals are notorious for the vast list of hidden costs that can appear on your final bill beyond the published daily or weekly rental cost. The key is to identify all those potential costs before you rent, so your comparison between two or three different quotes is more realistic.
Among possible costs are:
Additional drivers: some car rental companies charge to add a second or third driver to a rental contract. Others allow spouses and domestic partners to drive at no extra charge. Check if this penalty could pertain to you.
Age: particularly if renting overseas, check for age penalties or restrictions in the country where you rent, as well as any you might drive to or through. Restrictions seem to start at age 70. Any drivers under 21 or 25 may also trigger heavy surcharges, if allowed to drive the vehicle at all, both in the U.S. and overseas.
Airport surcharges: most airports charge for the convenience of picking up at or near the terminal. You can avoid this by renting in the nearest town or city, although this entails taking shuttles or taxis. If there is an airport shuttle to your hotel in town, renting in town may be a cost-effective solution.
Charging period: check your rental documents to find out if you are renting for 24-hour days or for calendar days. If you misunderstand this, you could end up with hourly charges for late returns.
Drop-off (or one-way): if your pickup and drop-off locations are not the same, this might show as a separate charge,or it might be built into your daily/weekly rate. Check to be sure, so you know what this service is costing you.
Early returns: returning a car early is not always a good thing as some companies will not refund the unused time. In fact, if you rent for a week and keep it less than that, it could throw you into the higher per-day rental rate. Check your rental documents.
Equipment rental: do not assume that add-ons such as infant seats, GPS navigation, toll transponder and roof racks are included in your quote. When you multiply the daily upcharge for each by the number of days of your rental, the impact on your bill could be considerable.
Frequent flier: we assume an offer of frequent flier miles when we use partner companies will be free. That is not always the case. Before you ask to be credited for miles, check to see how much that will cost you, if anything.
Gasoline: car rental companies typically charge outrageous per-gallon fees for gas, so your best bet is to use a phone app to see how close to the drop-off point you can find a gas station with reasonable prices. Fill the tank up before drop-off and avoid this charge. The option to pay for a full tank upon departure is only ideal if you return the tank empty since there is no refund for unused gasoline.
Insurance: while we might be able to cover most potential risks with our personal automobile insurance policy or by using certain credit cards, ‘loss of use’ insurance (covering the lost revenue when the car you damaged is off the road for repairs) is not often covered. Be thorough in examining your coverages before declining the car rental’s offerings.
Mileage: check your rental documents to be sure you have unlimited mileage and to see if there is an upcharge for taking the car out of state. Exceeding mileage limits can lead to high costs quickly.
Roadside assistance: check to see if this service is included in the rental rate or if it is a separate add-on fee. If separate, consider if you are not covered by your own motor club (such as AAA) membership.
Taxes: Required state and local sales taxes vary from place to place, and foreign countries will have their equivalent, often called a value-added tax or VAT. These cannot be avoided. Also look out for unusual charges such as ‘vehicle licensing’ or ‘energy recovery’ fees.
The first evaluation criteria for renting a car include the cost, the warranty, the ease of renting and canceling and the access you will have to the company’s customer representatives.
Cost: In addition to the daily or weekly rental fee published by car rental companies, a thorough investigation will unearth a series of additional fees that should be clearly described in the terms and conditions of the rental agreement. However, you will want to identify and quantify them before you rent, as they can easily multiply the expected cost of the rental. Some of these are listed in the ‘Common Fees for Car Rentals for Seniors’ section above.
Warranty: In the case of car rentals, warranties often take the form of ‘best rate guarantees’ that apply as long as you comply with certain conditions. Having a fully functioning automobile is obviously also something all rental companies warrant.
Ease: Seniors place special importance on transactions that are easy. In the case of car rentals, this starts with the company’s website, the selection process, the payment process, the experience at the time of pickup and of drop-off. A company that understands the buying power of today’s senior population will do everything to be sure things go smoothly, with small supportive benefits wherever they make sense.
Cancellation: Cancellation policies vary in the car rental industry, so it is important to know cutoff times(often 24 hours before scheduled pickup) after which you may be charged a fee.In many cases, though, there is no cancellation fee at all. Check to be sure.
Customer support:‘Things happen’ when you are on the road, so the closer a company’s customer support comes to being available 24/7/365, the better. Ideal access would include phone, email, online chat and a mobile app, as you do not know what communications service you will have available in case of emergency.
If you are looking for a free category upgrade to your car rental reservation, your best chance comes if you belong to the car rental company’s membership program.Membership is free, and there is no requirement that you be a frequent renter to qualify. Membership may also mean not having to stop at the rental counter, but rather being able to go straight out to the cars, including to some of the newer vehicles set aside for members. This is one membership that truly matters.
Also, counter employees are often incentivized for making sales of prepaid fuel or extra insurance packages. By letting them know up front that you intend to purchase those extras, your chances for an upgrade may improve.
When you do pick up a car, be certain to walk around it and check for body damage. Take date-stamped pictures with your smartphone. Check that lights and turn signals work. Also note the odometer reading. If your rental agreement does not match the reading or if you see any damage, be sure to report it before leaving to avoid being held responsible for it later. Do the same when you drop off the car; be sure an employee does a walk-around with you and checks it in as undamaged.
One word of warning: many car rental companies check driving records when you check in at the rental counter. If you have serious moving violations, you might want to ask the company before reserving whether they check driving records and have them clear yours in advance, so you are not stranded at your destination with no rented car.